Category Archives: Services

Going green, New York style

It’s probably not unfair to say that – in the past at least – America has shown more collective concern for the result of the Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race than for the environment. Sure, there’s an occasionally impressive recycling programme in some cities (in New York it’s effectively handled by the homeless, keen to get their hands on the five cents you can receive returning for beer cans and soda bottles), but when it comes to the wider picture, there has traditionally been more enthusiasm for a twenty seven year old repeatrerun of an episode of Diff’rent Strokes.

That’s not to say that Britain is some glorious eco-aware capital which leaves no environmental footprint. Far from it. This is, after all, a country that is currently attempting to expand Heathrow, which is already one of the busiest airports in the world. But, from the outside at least, there seems to be a consistent pattern of measures that are being introduced to significantly reduce the UK’s impact on the environment.

Much of it is down to the European Union, who appear to have given up on attempting to ensure that – say – all bananas sold in the region have to be straight, and are instead attempting to impose sensible environmentally conscious measures. Banning incandescent lightbulbs and forcing people to use long-life energy saving bulbs instead isn’t necessarily going to save the world, but every little helps. Obviously, having a romantic dinner lit by one of the new bulbs is broadly akin to dining under the glare of the Old TraffordYankee Stadium floodlights, but European bureaucrats clearly don’t need artificial lighting to get their partners in the mood for lurve.

For the average man or woman on the British street, the most noticeable change has been the effective abandonment of the disposable plastic carrier bag. Given that 13 billion of the bags have been given away every year, and the majority take around 1000 years to degrade, any move to reduce their distribution has got to be a good thing. Some supermarkets now discourage their use by charging for them, while others reward reusing old bags. And the measures are apparently effective, without any real customer dissatisfaction.

Sounds like a plan that could be introduced in the States, right? Wrong.

While the French took to the streets to bring about the downfall of the Ancien RĂ©gime, and 100,000 people flocked to Tiananmen Square in 1989 to protest the autocratic nature of their government, revolution in America would truly be caused by the removal of shopping bags from US supermarketsgrocery stores.

I should check up on this, given the immigration requirement to pass a US history test, but I believe that the 28th amendment to the US constitution enshrines the rights of the people to use plastic carrier bags to excess. Walmart stores have weird carousels that seem to allow the intellectual giants at the checkout to spit out bags to shoppers at an approximate rate of six per second. And if you happen to go to a supermarket for just one forgotten item, the look you get when you say a bag isn’t necessary suggests you’ve just accidentally accepted responsibility for every unsolved crime within a thirty block radius.

The strange thing is that most of the cheaper supermarkets have worked out that they spend a not-inconsiderable amount of money on bags every year, and have responded to that by making sure the bags are the cheapest they can possibly find. Indeed, so cheap are the bags that scientists have been forced to reassess the size of individual molecules in order to take into account the thinness of these (no doubt) Chinese imports.

Still, at least this means that there’s less plastic being used, and the landfills have less material being placed in them? Sadly not. The thin bags are singularly incapable of holding more than a single tomato without splitting irreparably and dumping all your shopping over the ground. Staff at the checkouts have to double bag everything to give you any chance of getting your groceries home intact.

It’s almost as if environmental policy was being handled by AIG, isn’t it?


Regular readers will know that I have a small obsession with the sandwich. My reputation is obviously beginning to precede me, as Toni and Mike at Pond Parleys have asked me to give my view of the American sandwich on this week’s post (which will be posted at some point today). I am my usual fair and reasonable self, as I’m sure you can imagine…

How to know everything there is to know

One thing that makes a New Yorker stand out from the crowd is their absolute stubborn refusal to accept that they could ever be wrong. You could be an undisputed world expert in a particularly obscure field of quantum physics, and yet you would still find a New York street cleaner who’d be more than happy to pick a quarrel with you regarding your chosen specialism. And don’t even think about chancing your arm in an argument with a New Yorker over a topic they think they might know something about. Like coffee, swearing, or honking your car horn when it’s least necessary.

The necessary adjunct is that if you’re never going to be wrong, then you need to know everything. Luckily New Yorkers aren’t shy in proclaiming their knowledge of anything and indeed everything. Google is good, but if you really need to get an answer, then you need a New Yorker. You may not get the right answer, but you’ll get it with a hell of a lot of conviction.

I’m lucky that – in the shape of The Special One (who has been resident in New York for around 20 years) – I live with the world’s leading expert on absolutely everything. It’s like living with a living breathing encyclopedia, albeit one that occasionally makes the kind of claims that make Wikipedia look like the font of all knowledge. There is literally nothing that she doesn’t know the answer to, whether it’s the identity of the 1946 FA Cup winners or the colour of the pants I’m wearing right now. And woe betide you if you dare even timidly question her belief that it was a) the Birmingham Raiders and b) neon pink.

Just occasionally though, it would be great if a New Yorker could put their hand up in the air and say “you know, maybe I am not the all-seeing one.”

On Saturday, I went to a local dry cleaners to pick up some clothes that had languished there for about five weeks; what can I say, I always like to test out their policy on how long they keep clothes. Anyway, as I walked in, a clearly frantic young woman was stood at the counter with a white silk Armani top laid out on the counter. The owner, a Chinese man who from previous experience has good but limited English, stood patiently as the woman pointed out some stains that had accidentally found their way onto the top.

Now, there are two things to say about these stains. Firstly, from where I was standing (which was pretty close), I couldn’t see even one. Secondly, there was not a single place on the blouse that she did not indicate had a stain on it. The owner looked on in disbelief as she urged him to place a ‘stain’ sticker on around forty seven different positions. According to her, the top was less ‘blouse’ and more ‘all over stain carrier’.

Having indicated all the stains, the desperate woman asked if there was any chance that the dry cleaning was going to make the stains any worse. Given that the entire top was apparently stained, I don’t know whether she thought that the dry cleaner was going to pour a gallon of crude oil on top of it, but that seems to be the only way that he could have made it worse.

Once the woman had finally accepted that the owner had at least seen all the stains, she then asked whether he thought that they would all come out. The owner insisted that they would.

“But why do you think they’ll come out?” she bleated.

“Because it’s the dry cleaning. All the stains will come out,” he insisted.

“But what makes you say that?”

“They’ll come out, I really think.”

“But what makes you think that they’ll come out?”

“The dry cleaning process will just get the stains out.”

“But what makes you say that?”

The woman turned to me, smiled awkwardly, and gave me the conspiratorial look that says something along the lines of “this guy just isn’t really getting what I’m saying, is he?”

Finally my indignation at her became too much, and I snapped “it’s because he’s the expert at dry cleaning, and you’re not.”

The woman turned back to the man, took her ticket, and stomped out. To be fair, she slammed the door like a complete expert.

The Carroll Gardens cleaning curse

As any readers from the UK will probably know, there’s something known as ‘The Curse of OK!’ under which a remarkably large number of celebrity couples that open their homes to the cameras of the glossy magazine OK! suddenly find their marriage falling apart. Personally I reckon it’s more due to the fact that most celebrities have the sticking power of a poster affixed to a bedroom wall with nothing more than spit, but nonetheless the theory of the curse perpetuates.

Now I fear that a new curse has emerged, which peculiarly fixates only on dry cleaners in the Carroll Gardens area of Brooklyn. The Curse of A Brit Out Of Water, as we’ll arbitrarily call it, says that any laundry or dry cleaner that allows my shirts to pass over its threshhold will close down within a matter of weeks. First it happened to No 1 Dry Cleaners on Smith Street, and now Elegant Cleaners on Court Street will pull down its shutters for the final time at the end of the month after foolishly agreeing in a rash moment to clean my shirts.

Rumours that my shirts are so scruffy that most cleaners lose the will to stay in business are apparently wide of the mark. Both cleaners claim that their landlords doubled their rents and that they couldn’t afford to stay as a result, but whatever they say. they all know that it’s really down to the curse.

Now when I wander the streets of Carroll Gardens, I see laundry proprietors nervously watching me pass, silently willing me to keep walking past their store. Others begin frantically shuttering their properties as I approach, desperate to escape the eager clutches of the curse. There’s even a suggestion that they’re forming a community group to warn each other whenever they see me leave the apartment with a bunch of shirts in my clutches.

Sadly, I still haven’t managed to bring down Armando’s. But he can’t escape the curse for much longer, mark my words.

Racked with guilt

Sitting at my desk on Friday, a short grey-haired old man popped his head around the door. Now, I work in a relatively young office, and grey-haired old men are about as regular a sighting as Lindsay Lohan at a MENSA meeting. Needless to say, seeing the man’s shadowy figure at the door of my office made me pinch myself just to make sure that I hadn’t died suddenly and was being confronted by the ghost of long-dead neighbours whose flowers I’d accidentally kicked my football into when I was a kid.

Fortunately, living as I do in America, Mr and Mrs Lester haven’t yet been able to find me in order to haunt me, and my metaphorical petunias remain firmly intact. As it turned out, it was just Harry the shoe shine man asking me I wanted my footwear buffed up.

Having your shoes polished by a third party is still relatively uncommon in the UK, and I have to confess that the whole process slightly scares me. Although not because I don’t like having nice shiny shoes that you can see your face in. Let’s face it, I’m never going to have the ability (or indeed the inclination) to create the kind of shine that you get after fifteen years of service in the Royal Brigadiers.

It would seem that I have an emotional problem with paying to have relatively menial tasks done. It’s not that I’m cheap – it’s just that I always feel guilty whenever I outsource things that deep down I know I should probably take a few minutes to do myself. Every time I get my laundry done, have groceries delivered, or even (on very rare occasions) ask an assistant to get me a cup of coffee, I feel like a 19th century slavemaster asking one of his cruelly-treated subordinates to clip his toenails for him.

Perhaps my neurosis is caused by having lived all my life in Britain, where the opportunity to pay for menial tasks is much more limited than it is here. Sure, you can have your clothes cleaned, but nobody’s going to come to your house and pick them up for you. And if you want your shoes shined, it’s probably time that you dig out that seventeen year old dried-up tin of shoe polish and an old duster.

At the same time, I know that there’s a time-cost equation, and if having some of my little jobs done for me at low cost gives me more time to do the things that I really want to do, then I’ll reluctantly put aside my fears of being accused of encouraging servitude, and put my hands in my pockets to pay up.

Thankfully, I’ve managed to find two ways of assuaging my middle-class guilt. Firstly, I always tip well over the odds, in an attempt to prove to myself and my slaveservice provider that the job is central to the running of civiliszed society. Secondly, I attempt to frame my facial features in such a way as to convey a message that says “Normally I would do this for myself, but today I’m extremely busy because I’m restoring sight to dozens of third world children. I know I don’t look like a doctor and there are no kids around, but nevertheless by agreeing to clean my shoes, you have helped provide the gift of sight to a new generation.”

It may be hypocrisy, but at least it’s hypocrisy with shiny shoes.